A large-scale study of divorce in the Netherlands recently reported that parents of teenage daughters are more likely to divorce than parents of sons.
This headline may well have set alarm bells ringing for many couples, because, logically, if you have more than one child then there’s an even chance you have at least one daughter!
As usual, the devil is in the detail. Firstly, the main risk appears to be only around the 13-18 age range. Secondly, the difference is quite small (10.7% for parents of first-born boys, compared with 11.3% for parents of first-born girls). Thirdly, it only seems to apply if the fathers grew up without sisters. There were numerous suggestions as to why this might be the case, but the study wasn’t able to give any concrete answers.
Of course, there may be many parents reading this and saying, “Well, we have teenage daughters and neither of us have sisters, and our marriage is fine!” Others might already be divorced without a daughter or teenager in sight. The real message from this study is that divorce becomes more probable as children move into their teenage years.
Part of this may simply be due to the fact that by the time the kids are teenagers, the parents have been together for some time. If the partnership was built on little more than mutual attraction, there may be work to be done in building something more solid. But it may also be because some couples are uncertain when it comes to handing the challenges of the teenage years, and conflicts between kids and parents start to spill over into the adults’ relationship.
Okay, but why?
Pop culture is riddled with stereotypes of teenage girls and teenage boys. And we often see parents depicted as either clueless or overly strict, with predictably disastrous results.
But the reality is that every family and every teenager is different. Both boys and girls are equally capable of sneaking out on a school night, crying and slamming doors, wanting a tattoo or piercing, suffering from anxiety or an eating disorder, becoming non-communicative, or behaving in some other way that you and your partner find challenging. In short, although raising girls may present different challenges from raising boys, after it’s all done and dusted, every family has its own stories about who was the most difficult and who was the easiest – there’s no clear cut 'winner'!
So wouldn’t it be easier to just leave?
The teenage years do have the potential to put strains on family relationships, especially if there already cracks in the relationship. But it’s important to remember that splitting up may create a whole new set of problems. Rather than look for reasons to go, think about how problems and challenges can be managed:
- Develop a different relationship
The journey from child to adolescent to adult is often not a smooth one and there may be stumbles and falls along the way. Change the way you relate to your children to acknowledge this transition. Treat them more like an adult (even if they aren’t acting that way all the time) whenever you can, and you’ll be helping them grow into that role.
- Don’t just wait for it to happen
Ongoing research into adolescent brain development tells us that there is a lot of ‘re-wiring’ going on during this period related to abilities such as improvements in risk-management, impulse control, self-regulation and emotional maturity. However, these don’t suddenly become fully operational overnight at their 18th birthday! They develop progressively as a consequence of the day-to-day, minute-to-minute interactions with their environment. This will include interactions with their peers at school and other out-of-home events, but they are still highly responsive to interactions in the family with parents and siblings. Parents can use these opportunities to model and teach the kind of behaviour and skills teenagers need to see and learn, so they can become well-functioning, healthy adults.
- Think outside the ‘box’
Parents can sometimes get too fixated on what’s going on at home. When considering teenagers’ behaviour it sometimes helps to ask, “Will this be useful for them when they leave home?”. A behaviour may be irritating or upsetting for parents but may well be something that will help the teenager become independent. On the other hand, parents need to be alert to behaviour that may cause relationship or employment difficulties in later life and work to find ways to address it while they still can.
- Work together, not against each other
If there are some unresolved relationship issues, it can be easy for one person to, in effect, side with the kids against the other partner. Even if this isn’t the case, it can be easy for one parent to convince themselves that this is what’s happening! Seeking some professional help is one way to help get to the bottom of some of these issues and fix them, rather than letting problems continue and escalate.
Another option, especially if most of the conflict in the house seems to be about parenting, is to have both partners do a parenting program to help give you some common ground and new skills and ideas to handle challenges.
Get some perspective
Parents of younger children sometimes ask, “Will it get better as they get older?”. My response is that it gets different. Parents need to be willing to change in order to support the changes their teenagers are experiencing. It won’t be too long before it’s all a distant memory and your kids have become adults themselves.